MHP upgrades its firepower
Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Glen Barcus fires an AR-15 rifle during a recent training session with fellow troopers at a firing range on Glacier Park International Airport property. Garrett Cheen/Daily Inter Lake
By NICHOLAS LEDDEN/Daily Inter Lake and The Associated Press
Crack, crack, crack.
Three Montana Highway Patrol troopers, firing from the prone position, sent 15 rounds from their new rifles downrange in quick succession recently.
The .223 caliber bullets punched easily through the plywood and paper targets, kicking up clods of dirt from the berm behind the range at Glacier Park International Airport.
After officers from the sixth district °ª which covers Flathead, Lake, and Lincoln counties °ª qualify with the new weapon, every trooper in Montana will be riding shotgun with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle.
°°They°¯re just all-around more versatile for our day and age,°± Trooper Jerril Ren, one of the patrol°¯s firearms instructors, said of the AR-15. °°For the changing times, I think it°¯s just more appropriate.°±
The AR-15s are replacing the patrol°¯s old M-14 rifles, which normally are carried in a patrol car°¯s trunk. After qualification, troopers will be required to carry their assault rifles mounted between the front seats of their vehicles.
°°For the most part, they°¯re trying to make them more readily available to the officer,°± said Ren, noting that a change in common tactical situations necessitated a different type of firepower.
Until authorities introduced the now-mandatory AR-15, it was optional for troopers to carry the M-14 °ª a .308-caliber rifle that saw service in the U.S. Army from the late 1950s until the beginning of the Vietnam War.
The AR-15 is smaller, lightweight, collapsible, more versatile and better suited to a trooper°¯s needs, Ren said. Most officer-involved shootings occur at close range, and the M-14 tends to punch right through walls and vehicles, he added.
The Montana Highway Patrol isn°¯t alone in upping the firepower available to its troopers.
Along with nonlethal devices such as Tasers and stun guns, an increasing number of rank-and-file patrol officers across the United States have started carrying high-powered rifles.
Law enforcement officials say it°¯s part of a trend that has accelerated in the last year because of more shootouts with guns, standoffs in which police were outgunned, rising officer fatalities in 2007 and mass shootings of civilians where heavily armed °°active shooters°± kill until being killed.
°°If you get into a firefight, you want to be the winner,°± said Scott Knight, police chief for Chaska, Minn., and chairman of the firearms committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. °°Our departments are moving to those weapons out of necessity across the country.°±
Chaska is a town of about 24,000 residents 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, and in March Knight ordered the department°¯s first 10 rifles, each with two 30-round magazines.
About half the Flathead County Sheriff°¯s Office deputies carry an AR-15 or AR-15 variant, usually in the trunks of their patrol cars, patrol Commander Dave Leib said.
Deputies automatically are issued an M-14, but many opt to replace them with .223-caliber rifles paid for out of their own pocket.
All are semiautomatic, he said.
Every marked patrol car in the Kalispell Police Department comes equipped with an MP-15 rifle mounted within the patrol officer°¯s reach, Chief Roger Nasset said. The department began buying rifles after police were outgunned during a botched 1997 bank robbery in Los Angeles.
°°They°¯re a necessary tool,°± Nasset said.
Only patchwork information is available on how many other law enforcement agencies nationwide are outfitting sheriff°¯s deputies and patrol officers with the kind of firepower once reserved for specialized SWAT teams.
But from Chaska to the city of Miami to college campuses in Arizona, agencies are acquiring AR-15s or M-4s, both close relatives of the military°¯s M-16.
All three weapons fire .223-caliber bullets. While the M-16 can fire as an automatic, the M-4 and AR-15 are generally configured to fire one round with each squeeze of the trigger.
The rifles can carry clips that hold 30 rounds, can fire bullets with enough velocity to pierce some types of body armor and have greater accuracy at longer range than handguns. Police say the guns are more accurate then a handgun in life-and-death situations.
Law enforcement officials see another benefit: Many officers are former soldiers familiar with the M-16 who can make an easy transition to police rifles, which cost $900 to $1,500.
In Miami, Police Chief John Timoney late last year authorized his patrol officers to carry AR-15s because of a rise in assault rifle use by criminals.
The chief blamed the 2004 expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons for the escalation of heavily armed violence on Miami°¯s streets. He said AK-47s have become a °°gun of choice°± for criminals.
°°My police officer who was killed [in January], that was an AK-47 bought by an 18-year-old,°± said Timoney, whose agency now has about 50 AR-15s and expects to eventually get 150 more. °°This is a national problem. Police agencies all over the U.S. are going to bigger weapons.°±
In 2007, according to preliminary numbers compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 69 officers were shot to death, up from 52 in 2006 and the most in five years. Last year included six shootings where two or more officers were killed in the same event, said spokesman Kevin Morison.
°°There just seems to be a more brazen, cold-blooded killer out there,°± he said. °°Officers being shot multiple times and multiple officers being shot in the same incident. That°¯s fueling a lot of concern among law enforcement professionals.°±
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Violence Policy Center declined to comment on the trend of police agencies going to assault rifles.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said it understood the move, but blamed the expiration of the assault weapons ban for making it necessary.
°°Police officers need to be able to defend themselves and the rest of us, and they need the weapons to do so,°± spokesman Peter Hamm said. °°In a lot of departments across the country, officers are more and more finding military-style assault weapons in the hands of bad guys.°±
Law enforcement officials say the trend toward issuing better rifles to regular patrol officers started in Los Angeles after the 1997 shootout.
There, two heavily armed men wore body armor that stopped bullets fired by the standard-issue 9 mm Beretta handguns carried by police, 11 of whom were injured along with six civilians. The two bank robbers eventually were killed. The Los Angeles Police Department now issues AR-15s.
Two years later came Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two teens killed 13 people and wounded two dozen others before both committing suicide, forcing police to rethink a strategy based on securing areas and waiting for negotiators and SWAT teams.
The new strategy played out in February, when 51-year-old Robert Earl Thompson used a shotgun to take 16-year-old high school sophomore Nicole Street hostage at a gas station in Linn County, Ore. A sheriff°¯s sergeant used his AR-15 to kill Thompson within a few minutes of arriving.
°°The people we protect expect us to go in and resolve that situation and save that hostage,°± said Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller, who still is building the department°¯s arsenal of AR-15s.
While officers in the field can react more quickly than SWAT teams, law enforcement officials say that°¯s of little use if patrol officers are outgunned when they arrive. That concern has increased based on past shootings where assailants carried multiple weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
Last April, a Virginia Tech student armed with two handguns fired 174 rounds in just over nine minutes, killing 32 people and then himself when police stormed the stairs of the building.
°°They seem to be pretty well armed,°± Mueller said. °°Where they can reload and keep killing.°±